Violence could force out CAR's Muslim population - HRW

Women mourn for two relatives killed in Bangui's 5th district, CAR, 9 February Image copyright AFP
Image caption These women were mourning on Sunday for two relatives killed in Bangui

Religious violence in the Central African Republic could force its entire Muslim population to flee, a senior human rights worker has told BBC News.

Human Rights Watch emergency director Peter Bouckaert said this could affect the economy, as Muslims control the livestock market and other businesses.

Violence between the Christian majority and Muslims has torn the country apart since a coup last year.

Mr Bouckaert said at least ten people died this weekend in the capital city.

He said he had personally witnessed a Muslim being hacked to death in Bangui, in retaliation for the reported killing of six people by Muslim fighters.

The French news agency AFP said there was some dispute over the religion of the victim.

Tens of thousands of Muslims have already fled the to neighbouring Cameroon and Chad.

The CAR, one of Africa's poorest nations, has been in chaos for more than a year since Muslim Seleka rebels seized power.

Coup leader Michel Djotodia, who became the CAR's first Muslim leader, resigned as interim president last month as part of a regional peace process.

However, violence, largely perpetrated by either Christian anti-Balaka militias or Seleka members, has continued despite interventions by thousands of peacekeepers from the African Union and the former colonial power, France.

'Burned in the street'

"It's just a matter of days or weeks before the last pockets of Muslims in this country leave for Chad, fleeing this wave of violence," Mr Bouckaert told the BBC World Service.

"There are literally entire neighbourhoods which are completely emptied of their Muslim population. Their homes are being systematically taken down - roofs, doors, windows, everything is just being taken down. So the very evidence of their existence in this country is being erased."

On Sunday, he said, he was woken up to the sound of loud explosions coming from a Muslim area of Bangui and went with his team to investigate.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption French peacekeepers continue to patrol Bangui as families mourn new victims of the inter-religious violence
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Houses in Bangui's 5th district have been burnt down in the fighting
Image copyright AFP
Image caption A mosque stood ruined in Bangui's 5th district on Sunday
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Local police have started patrolling Bangui with the French military in a bid to restore order

"We came upon a body of a Muslim man being burned in the street," he said.

"The local people told us that overnight six civilians were killed by armed Muslim men in this area and they captured one of them and lynched him in the street and then burned his body. As we were there, they caught a second Muslim man and hacked him to death."

The latest victim of the violence in Bangui, he said in a tweet, was a Christian boy who had come to buy wood near the central mosque.

Muslim neighbourhoods were being abandoned, Mr Bouckaert said.

"The violence is now coming mostly from the anti-Balaka militias who are systematically attacking Muslim neighbourhoods but the Seleka fighters are still around."

The HRW official said Rwandan troops had told him the situation in the CAR had brought "back horrible memories" of the genocide in their own country two decades ago.

War crimes inquiry

The International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda says she has opened a preliminary investigation into possible war crimes in the CAR.

Mrs Bensouda said she had received reports of "extreme brutality by various groups".

The charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) says all communities are affected by the violence, but lately there have been collective reprisals against Muslims.

According to MSF, about 30,000 refugees are already in Chad and another 10,000 have reached Cameroon.

Amid the bloodshed, there are stories of people helping neighbours of a different religion.

In a tweet, Mr Bouckaert added: "Christian neighbours helping Muslim neighbours flee from Kolongo neighbourhood as looters from other areas flood in."

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